Mario G. Haddad, CEO of pan-Arab distributor Empire International, talks to Melanie Goodfellow about the Gulf theatrical market, as well as plans for the pan-Arab launch of Emirati feature From A To B.

Dubai and Beirut-based Empire International, the oldest distributor in the Middle East, is the official agent for Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox in the region.

The company is also poised to launch one of the most ambitious, regional releases for a non-Egyptian, Arab film to date, putting Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa’s road movie From A To B on to more than 60 screens in nine territories simultaneously at the beginning of January. 

Empire is one of five regional distributors participating in DIFF’s new Dubai Distribution Programmme this year.

Under the initiative, aimed at promoting pan-Arab distribution for Arabic cinema and spearheaded by the Dubai Film Market, the participants have agreed to acquire one Arabic title each from the DIFF line-up and release it in the region. 

Empire CEO and industry veteran Mario G Haddad talked to Screen International about his company and some of the benefits and challenges of distributing in the Middle East. 

Can you tell us about the history of Empire International?

The company was founded in Beirut by my father nearly a hundred years ago. Today, we are the official distributors of Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox in the Middle East. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of our relationship with Columbia last year. That must be a world record. I don’t think there’s any other distributor in the world with a US studio relationship stretching back that far. 

We opened our offices in Dubai in 2000. In those days, Beirut was the centre for distribution in the Middle East. It was the first American studios’ office in the Gulf. Everyone else followed because they realised the Gulf was the future. This was the place with the money and the first multiplexes. Everything was new and the country was booming. From 2000 to 2014, the market here has grown between seven to 15 percent every year. 

So you don’t acquire individual titles for distribution?

No. From time to time, but it’s rare, a contact will come to us and say we know you, we want you to distribute our film without any minimum guarantee. This is the case for the local Emirati company Image Nation, which we have been working with since their first feature, Sea Shadow. We distributed Sea Shadow and Djinn and now we have something which I personally think will be a big hit, From A To B. 

It was a huge success as the opening film at Abu Dhabi and some important international players are also expressing strong interest. They just want to see how it does locally. I loved the film. It manages to mix fun and politics at the same time. It’s a fruit salad; everything is in it. We’re launching it everywhere in the region – on 35 screens in Dubai as well as in Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. 

No Emirati film has ever been a pan-Arab success, do you think From A To B could be a game-changer? 

Look, it also screened at the Cairo Film Festival and it went down well there too. The guy in our office there said it just might take off although no Arabic film has ever made any money in Egypt if it’s not Egyptian. The Egyptians are very picky about this. But it doesn’t matter. Egypt has a population of 80 million people, but only 500,000 go the cinema. The big market is Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE and also Kuwait and Qatar. Kuwait can sometimes bring in 80 percent of the income of the Gulf. Lebanon used to be an important territory before the arrival of the cinemas in the Gulf, but now its number three or number four. 

What were your big hits this year? 

We had so many because Fox was the number one studio all over the world this year. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did well. The Equalizer was a big, big hit. It did more in the Middle East than in many European territories, like France and Italy, according to the company. We were number four worldwide. The Middle East is becoming an important territory and a place the studios are paying attention to. 

Is there any market in Middle East conflict hotspots like Iraq or Kurdistan? 

We have a complex of 14 screens in Erbil and we’re planning another one in Basra, Iraq’s third biggest city. Iraq is a huge country with a population of some 30 million people who have nothing else to do but go to the cinema. We choose our sites carefully. The population in Basra is Shiite, there are no Sunni Muslims – so there is no tension between the two communities. The cities where you have problems are where you have mixed populations like Baghdad. 

What do you think of the Dubai Distribution Programme. Do you think there is market for Arab cinema in the Middle East? 

We will support it but it’s very, very difficult to release an Arabic film outside of its home territory – unless it’s Egyptian. A Lebanese film might be very successful in Lebanon but that doesn’t mean it will work in Dubai, Cairo or Amman. Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now was a huge success in Lebanon but only sold 5,000 tickets in the UAE even though some 100,000 Lebanese live there. 

The Arab world is divided by the language. We speak different dialects. The only universally accepted dialect is the Egyptian one. Lebanese Arabic is difficult to sell and Emirati Arabic even more so. We have to sub-title. Sometimes if I want to speak to an Algerian or a Moroccan, I speak in French – I don’t understand them in Arabic. I think Americans and Europeans don’t understand this. We read the same newspapers but we can’t speak together – written Arabic is like Latin.

The other challenge is that producers in the region have unrealistic expectations linked to the minimum guarantees. We know the market and can usually estimate the box office, with a margin of 18% to 20%, but usually we know what’s going to happen. They ask for too much which often results in the film not getting any release at all.